Happy New Year! Nearly everyone who has overindulged on alcohol on New Year's Eve has woken up on New Year's Day with the tell-tale signs of a hangover: bleary eyes, nausea and the classic pounding headache.
While there are plenty of theories and superstitions about how to get over a nasty hangover, people may not know the actual science behind that pounding feeling in your head. This year we're breaking down the actual science of a hangover.
What Causes a Hangover?
Dr. Crystal Lantz-DeGeorge, an internal medicine physician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, said whether or not you have a bad hangover depends on how your body breaks down alcohol.
First, the body absorbs the alcohol through the intestines into the blood stream. As the liver filters the blood, it uses chemicals, including an enzyme, to break down the alcohol first into acetaldehyde and then acetic acid, which is removed in your waste. Lantz-DeGeorge said it’s the build-up of acetaldehyde “that causes all the hangover symptoms.”
Lantz-DeGeorge said if your body isn’t making these chemicals fast enough to break down acetaldehyde into acetic acid, you’re going to have an even worse hangover.
How Do You Get Over a Hangover?
Lantz-DeGeorge said an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory can help mitigate the symptoms, but most people will just have to wait until their body finishes processing the alcohol.
"There’s no magical quick fixes," Lantz-DeGeorge said of hangover cures. "There’s no special food, there’s no evidence that hair of the dog would do anything except lead to another hangover."
She warns against taking acetaminophen as it is processed through the liver and can strain the organ already working to breakdown alcohol in the blood.
Dehydration can make hangovers seem worse, so drinking water is key since alcohol is a diuretic.
Why Do Some People Have Worse Hangovers Than Others?
Not all drinkers are created equal and some people are more prone to terrible hangovers than others. Lantz-DeGeorge said people of certain ethnicities, including people of East Asian descent, can be more likely to have a whopper of a hangover the day after drinking due to genetic factors.
"They have mutation in their gene, that first step is very efficient," Lantz-DeGeorge said of breaking down alcohol in to acetaldehyde.
However, she said they often have less ability to then break down the acetaldehyde quickly, meaning the "alcohol gets them to a toxic hangover."
Is One Booze Better for Avoiding Hangovers?
In terms of the alcohol breakdown, there is no magic drink that will protect you from a hangover unless it's nonalcoholic. Lantz-DeGeorge said unsurprisingly the more alcohol you drink, the more likely you'll have a bad hangover.
Lanz-DeGeoge said some liquors have compounds that can actually worsen an already bad hangover. She explained that some darker liquors like scotch or bourbon have chemicals that arise from fermentation that, when broken down, can make a drinker feel even lousier.